Monday, November 21, 2016

Not normal

A few weeks ago I was chatting with someone in the office at the church, and we were commiserating about the electoral campaign and the vulgarity and vitriol coming out of it.  And she said she couldn’t wait until November 9, when it would all be over and life could get back to normal.  Well, I had to tell her that I was sorry to say so, but that I didn’t think it would be over then, and that normal might never return.  Now, when I said that I was envisioning a different scenario from the one that played out in the end.  And you can call me a hypocrite if you like, but now the idea of returning to normal feels less like a promise to be wistful about, and more like a temptation to be resisted. 
My daughter came home upset the other night because a friend of hers at school, who had been as outraged as all the other kids during the campaign, had said of the President-elect, “well, he’s not that bad.”  Which was also the message that the sitting President put out after meeting for the first time with his soon-to-be successor.  And even I, in the days right after the election, when so many people I knew were freaking out, posted a statement on Facebook suggesting we give the man the benefit of the doubt.  I dared to suggest that the realization of his awesome responsibility, and some vaporous mystique of the office that he inhaled in corridors of the White House, might awaken a latent graciousness and magnanimity in his soul.     
But then he started filling posts in his administration: for National Security Advisor, he chose a man who likens Islam to cancer, and describes it as a political ideology disguised as a religion; for Attorney General, a Senator who was rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record of overt racism; for his senior advisor and chief political strategist, an internet publisher of white-nationalist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic propaganda.  The Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist wing of the President-elect’s movement is jubilant, anticipating an all-out attack on the rights and liberties of ethnic, and sexual, and religious minorities.  God help us if we come to see this as normal.
Of course, from a Christian point of view, there was never any “normal” to get back to.  The Collect for this last Sunday of the Christian year describes the peoples of the earth as under the sway of a hostile power.  It keeps us divided from each other, splintered into spurious identities of nation, and race, and religion.  Not only are we divided, but we are also enslaved.  We are imprisoned in the resentment and hate we nurse against those we consider “the other,” in the lies we tell to rationalize injustice and violence.  Even when we succeed in dominating the other, and enjoying the privilege of their subservience, we are not free.  We have only subjected ourselves, along with them, to a superior power.  And the name that the Collect gives for this power is “sin.”
And it prays for God’s well-beloved Son to free us from this bondage and bring us together under his most gracious rule.  But when it says that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we must be careful not to misunderstand.  This does not mean that he is of same ilk as the kings and presidents and party chairmen who rule the nations of the world, or that he makes a rival claim to their power.   It is saying that Christ has overcome the superior power that keeps them, and us, enslaved.  Because all earthly power, when you come right down to it, is a doomed effort to perpetuate itself, to defend its interests against those of an other.  But Christ’s power comes from the sovereign will of the almighty and everlasting God, whose purpose it is to reconcile all people, and restore all things.
Which sounds nice, but how it really works is not the least bit normal.  This is apparent when you consider that this power was decisively revealed on the cross.  In Luke’s telling of the story, the Jewish leaders scoff at Jesus as he is hanging on the cross, and say, “he saved others; let him save himself.”  And then the Roman soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  Finally one of the men crucified along with Jesus, derides him, saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  To these people “save yourself,” is a taunt, a way of rubbing Jesus’ nose in his powerlessness, because preserving oneself is what power is for.   His inability or unwillingness to save himself is proof that he is no king, and no Messiah. 
But the other criminal is somehow able to see the real power of Jesus.  Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebellious slaves and others who took up arms against the state.  So here is someone who has tried and failed to overthrow domination with revolutionary violence.  He knows enough about Jesus to understand that this was not his way, and yet here Jesus is, suffering alongside him, condemned as if guilty of the man’s own crime.  And this fills his dying agony with insight about what is really happening here.  Jesus has not failed, because he never tried to win victory for one party over another, or to restore the greatness of one exceptional nation.  He is, in fact, freely giving his life to lead all humankind into a different world.  He is founding a new humanity, on the forgiveness of perpetrators and the witness of victims, on the vulnerability to lostness and sickness and sinfulness and death that we all have in common, and on our shared hope for the answering compassion of a loving God. 
And so the crucified revolutionary discovers the unconditional and sacrificial love of Jesus, which more than a religious sentiment; more than a social ethic; more than a political strategy.  In his willingness to forgo self-preservation in his confrontation with the power of sin, he is one with the self-emptying of God who created a universe free to rebel against their creator.  He is one with the compassion of God who refuses to abandon her creatures to their rebellion.  Jesus manifested this unity of human and divine will throughout public ministry, and his death and resurrection make it finally possible for all of us to perceive it, to believe in it, to understand how it works, and what it aims to do.  And when our eyes open to see the kingdom of the Son of God, it is not just an illumination of the mind, but a longing kindled the heart, a fire lit in the soul, a passion to offer our selves in service to its consummation.  The love that was in Christ becomes our own, not to form us into a new tribe called Christians, to wield the old, false power of domination over others, but to make us free agents of the reconciling, liberating love of God.        
The news this week contained a vivid demonstration of this love.  As the COP22 climate conference in Morocco was winding up on Friday, a group of 48 of the poorest countries in the world made an announcement.  They said that while it is true that they are the least responsible for adding greenhouses gases to the atmosphere, and have benefitted the least from fossil-fueled industrial development, and have the least capacity to address the problem of human-caused climate distruption, because they are suffering the most from the unfolding catastrophe they have decided to take the lead in saving humanity.  And so they are committing themselves to leaving behind the carbon economy as soon as possible.  They are revising their plans for national development so that their carbon emissions peak by 2020, and they will build resilient economies based on renewable energy, and be completely carbon-neutral by 2050.
I’m not sure what it says that while we squander our wealth on military dominance, and indulge our fantasies of nationalistic revival, the poorest people in the world are displaying the moral greatness that we lack.  Or that while we willfully prefer opinions of convenience to the facts threatening our children’s future, they are showing the capacity for altruistic sacrifice we seem largely to have lost.  Certainly it gives the lie to any claim we might make to be a Christian nation.  But “Christian nation” is an oxymoron anyway.  And if the murderer could gain paradise while hanging on a cross, surely it isn’t too late for us.  The Son of God still has the power to free us from the bondage of division and the slavery of sin, if we really want him to.  But, of course, we would have to give up being normal.   

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The way to freedom

On the morning of Wednesday, November 5, 1980, I met with a half-dozen of my friends outside our high school before first-period band.  We passed around black strips of cloth and safety pins and helped each other fasten them around our upper arms, as signs of mourning and protest.   Because the night before our hopes had been dashed, our hopes to come of age in a world moving toward peace, equality, and justice.  A right-wing extremist had been elected President of the United States.   
Over the next several months, I wrote a paper for my honors U.S. History course about the prospects for dictatorship in our country.  The first part was a summary of a classic work on the rise of Fascism, Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm.  Fromm, a psychoanalyst, was not interested in political history so much as in social psychology.  He proposed that human beings have an innate and existential need for freedom, a kind of spontaneous solidarity with others in love and work, not on the basis of primal ties of family and race and tradition, but as creative individuals.  But, Fromm argued, modern social and economic conditions sometimes frustrate and prevent individuality from developing in this way.  At the same time, these conditions tear apart the primal bonds that used to make us psychologically secure.  Hanging suspended in the void, between stunted individuality and the loss of primal ties, people find freedom too much to bear.  So they give it away to an authoritarian figure.  Relieved of the burden of freedom, they experience it vicariously through the strongman, the one who alone is magnificently free to say the unthinkable, and do the unspeakable.

My paper continued with a historical account of populist demagogues in the United States during the period of the Great Depression, and then went on to a survey of contemporary society.  I described economic decline and the resulting alienation and resentment, in the small towns and the industrial working-class.  I noted the resurgence of nationalism and militarism, the manipulation of public opinion through misinformation and propaganda, and the rise of a reactionary political movement.  And I concluded my paper, not with a prediction, but with a warning, of a situation taking shape that could lead to the end of our democracy. 
After last Tuesday night more people than ever are feeling that this is a real possibility.  And it is not hard to see why.  Even as he calls for national unity, the President-elect has yet to pledge explicitly that he will defend the constitutional rights of the vulnerable groups he threatened and bullied during his campaign.  He has not even condemned the wave of celebratory hate crimes that has followed his election.   But as troubling as this is, I would urge us not to misunderstand.  The majority of voters, who cast ballots for Trump did not do so because they are more racist or misogynistic than the rest of us.  They are not longing for a Fascist dictatorship.  They disliked the same aspects of his message and his personality as others did. 
But they were willing to hold their noses and vote for him because they are desperate for social and economic change.  They have feel humiliated and afraid because of the long, relentless withering of their future prospects and their communities while, as Americans, they believe it is their birthright to be free.  Theirs was not a partisan decision--millions of them would have been happier to vote for Bernie Sanders.  But, given the choice they had, Trump was the more revolutionary option.  For all the symbolic significance of her sex, Clinton was the candidate of more of the same.  And here we have to be completely honest.  Under the leadership of the Clintons and Obama some of the most troubling signs of our country’s drift toward totalitarian rule—the fusion of government and corporate power, the expansion of state secrecy and mass surveillance, the continuation of a state of endless war, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the militarization of the police, and the criminalization of the poor—became the policy of the Democratic Party.
Of course, they are Republican policy too, and this is where Trump’s less rabid supporters are deceived.  The new President will quickly learn the limits our Constitution places on his power.  And even if he truly desires, which I suppose he might, to somehow turn back the clock on neoliberal globalization, the leaders of his party in the Congress do not.  Unlike him, they have a legislative record, which shows how slavishly they do the bidding of the corporate elite.  And this raises the prospect of a truly precarious moment that is still to come—now that Sanders and Trump have raised the flag of revolution, what happens in the vast sections of our country sinking into the red, when folks realize that they’ve been fooled again? 

Jesus of Nazareth lived in a time of seething popular unrest, of repeated cycles of revolutionary violence, and even more violent reprisals and repression.  And he wasn’t especially optimistic about the future of his nation.  As he presciently said, “the days will come when not a stone will be left upon a stone.”  But under these conditions, for a brief time, Jesus carried out a public campaign; a campaign to show the world for all time what it looks like when the Spirit of God has set someone completely free.   And because Jesus was free--of hate and fear, of greed and self-pity, of the desire to dominate or submit, free of misgivings about the goodness and compassion and wisdom of God, and free of illusions about human beings, he was the most dangerous man alive. 
Jesus was hated and feared by the authorities.  And for good reason, because the people who became Jesus’ disciples, who believed what he said and followed him to hear more, began to see that they also could be free.  They also could come alive with the Spirit of God, and become new people, free and spontaneous individual agents of God’s new creation of the world.   It wasn’t going to be easy.  It’s never easy to let go of old identities, old ties to family and tribe, and old religious certainties.  It’s not easy to give up on social climbing, on grasping after wealth and prestige, and the other things that make us feel superior to others.  It’s not easy to write off the debts we think that we are owed.   
It is not easy to have faith that we are sons and daughters of God, who provides for our every need, and will not allow one hair of our head to perish.  It is not easy to trust that we are brothers and sisters, meant to live together in repentance, forgiveness, and mutual love.  It’s not easy to share all things in common, and to give equal respect, and equal value, to our very different talents, and backgrounds, and needs.  No wonder so many people didn’t get it.  No wonder they preferred to think that following Jesus meant championing a strongman who would make Israel great again. 

But instead Jesus died.  He died to pay the cost of freedom for others, which is what the word “redemption” means.  He rose again and sent his disciples in his Spirit, to continue his public campaign of demonstrating what freedom is.  As the decades went on, and the political violence went from bad to worse, the Jesus movement refused to take sides in it, and for that they were despised by everyone.  They rejected the demand to honor earthly rulers in the place of God, and for this they were hunted.  But it’s not like they didn’t have political power—in a strange and unprecedented way, they did.   It came from a promise that Jesus had made to his disciples not long before he died: the promise that, even surrounded by enemies, even standing, accused, before kings and governors, they would not be alone: “I will give you words,” said Jesus, “and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  They might be in chains on their way to execution, but speaking Christ’s words, they would have power.  They would be free.  

I wish you all could have been with me in Sacramento last weekend at our church Convention when the youth of our Diocese got up to speak.   Their adult and college-age leaders went first, but then, one after the other, the fourteen and fifteen-year olds came up to the mike.  They were hesitant at first, but seemed to draw confidence from each other, as they gave their testimony.  They had gone on pilgrimage last summer, some to South Africa, others to Tule Lake here in Northern California, and in a vast hall, in front of hundreds of their elders, they spoke passionately and persuasively of what they had seen and heard and learned. 
They bore witness to the scars left on bodies and communities, and on the land, by violence and injustice.  They testified to the persistence of pain, and the suffocation of denial, and of the truth-telling and acknowledgment of wrong that is the first step toward forgiveness.  They spoke of the new life that flows from reconciliation.  They spoke of being changed, of wanting to change, of wanting to make change happen.  And believe it or not, they spoke of the church--of how much it meant to them to be encouraged by their church to explore and discover the Gospel as the healing power of the Spirit in the world, the power to create community, and to be free.  

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.